Speaking for thousands of Hutterites

Nathan Liewicki
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Kirkby's novels describe misunderstood culture

The impending smell of fresh bread and fresh buns made it easier for Mary-Ann Kirkby to wake up before the sun peered over the eastern horizon.

Non-fiction author Mary-Ann Kirkby will be making her second appearance at the Saskatchewan Festival of Words, which will be held July 17-20.

Although 4:30 a.m. came early, Kirkby enjoyed cooking and baking alongside other women. To her, “it all made it worth while” – even spending time in the slaughterhouse.

Kirkby, who now resides in Prince Albert, believes it is her mission “to build bridges between Hutterite and non-Hutterite communities,” and will be making her second appearance at the Saskatchewan Festival of Words in mid-July.

Her first book, I Am Hutterite, describes the difficult transition her parents and siblings had to make when they started a new life outside the Hutterite colony they chose to leave. Published in 2007, it won the prize for best non-fiction at the Saskatchewan Book Awards.

Only 10 years old when her family left the Fairholme Hutterite colony, Kirkby described I Am Hutterite as a “memoir of my life growing up on a Hutterite colony – set 40 years ago.”

Now 54, Kirkby’s second novel, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, is more of a look at present day Hutterite life. She described it as containing “fabulous rituals and traditions, our humour, the juicy gossip and all the lovely little stories that people have come to expect from my culture.”

Published in mid-April, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen currently sits as No. 5 on the Globe and Mail’s national bestsellers list. Kirkby is proud of the national acclamation her book has received since it was published, but the book itself has more or a regional and local focus.

She spent two years going from Hutterite colony to Hutterite colonies across the Prairie provinces, as well as a couple of stops in Montana.

“For me to come in to a colony, I still feel very much at home there and enjoy the camaraderie very much,” said Kirkby.

And when she visited colonies, Kirkby dresses in a respectful manner – always in a skirt or dress. At times she also donned traditional Hutterite apparel, including the headscarf that is “symbolic of our culture.”

Orthodox Hutterites – the most traditional of three Hutterite sects – wear headscarves with polka dots, and it is where Polka Dot Press derived from.

“Certainly my mother (wore them) when I was growing up, so I have a special affection for polka dots,” Kirkby told the Times-Herald.

So, are there times when she wonders what life would be like if she had remained in the Hutterite colony?

“I think that's what Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen was about,” she said. “It was really a book that I wrote for my readers who asked me: ‘Could you go back?’

“So, to spend the last two years going from colony to colony and really living a life that I would have lived if my parents hadn't left the colony, it really gave me a newfound respect for my people for their way of life and for the value of community.”

As the only Hutterite writer in North America, Kirkby said she feels it is incumbent upon her – through her writing – to tell Canadians who Hutterites truly are.

“I feel many times that I carry the weight of an entire culture on my shoulder.”

Nathan Liewicki can be reached at 306-691-1256 or follow him on Twitter @liewicks.

Organizations: Globe and Mail, Polka Dot Press, Times-Herald

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Montana, North America

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  • Jeremy
    July 03, 2014 - 19:38

    Good for her to paint a positive light onto our people. Doesn't happen all that much these days. Nonetheless, Mary-Ann Kirkby is not a hutterite, and at times her writings reflect the fact that she doesn't at all understand the reason we choose to serve our Lord as we do, living in community. She is also not the only hutterite writer, even if her writings make more waves through her use of the internet and social media which we too often, too much choose to ignore as an avenue to connect more to people outside our communities which is the very ideal we strive for: "To live as a people apart from the influences of a world that values an entirely different set of beliefs and values than we do."